Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sparked another round of controversy this week when he suggested at a press conference on Tuesday the possibility that Mongolia and Turkey could join the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which the Philippines is now chairing. Though Duterte’s offhand comment inspired some rather sensationalist headlines among some media outlets, the proposal as outlined is unlikely to go anywhere and also vastly oversimplifies the complex choices that the regional grouping faces.
ASEAN currently groups ten countries geographically located within Southeast Asia – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. But in a news conference upon his arrival in Davao City on Tuesday, Duterte revealed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mongolian Prime Minister Jargatulga Erdeneba had both allegedly said they wanted the Philippines, which holds ASEAN’s annually rotating chair this year, to “sponsor” their attempt to “join ASEAN.”
“Gusto nila magsali sa ASEAN (They want to join ASEAN),” Duterte related in a mix of English and Tagalog. “And since I am now the chair, ang Pilipinas ngayon (it’s the Philippines as chair now), they wanted me to sponsor that entry and I said, ‘Yes, why not?’”
Duterte’s comments quickly went viral, inspiring a mix of confusion and worry. This is despite the fact that the Philippine president, who had no prior foreign policy experience before assuming office last June, has repeatedly made offhand comments about foreign affairs on everything from the South China Sea to the U.S.-Philippine alliance and then had to clarify, moderate, or reverse his positions following advice from those around him (See: “Where is the New US-Philippines Military Pact Under Duterte?”). Indeed, as I have noted before, even some of Duterte’s advisers had begun telling observers to look more at what the Philippines eventually does rather than what the president initially says.
This appears to be just another one of those episodes. Simply put, considering Mongolia or Turkey for ASEAN membership is a non-starter because neither of the two countries is located in Southeast Asia. Both countries know this well and thus are unlikely to have asked Duterte to be placed in a grouping in a subregion that they do not belong to. That is not just because of geographic realities, but also legal ones. Article 6 of the ASEAN Charter, a document that has in effect become a legally-binding agreement among the ten member states (including the Philippines) since it entered into force in 2008, specifies “location in the recognized geographical region of Southeast Asia” as one of the four criteria for application and admission to ASEAN.
Though there might be some ambiguity on broad geographical questions like whether Turkey feels like it is part of Europe or Asia, as Duterte alluded to during the press conference, no one with a basic understanding of cartography would argue that Turkey or Mongolia is part of Southeast Asia. This baseline knowledge would apply to ASEAN member states, who, as the ASEAN Charter notes, would all need to agree on the admission of new members. Indeed, contrary to what Duterte had indicated, bringing new members into the ASEAN fold is a decision that has to go through a long and painful method of consensus within the regional grouping over time, rather than something unilaterally determined by an ASEAN chair during a particular year.
That gets to another problem with Duterte’s comments on this issue. Though his “why not” response may seem glib, it grossly oversimplifies the complex realities that ASEAN has had to deal with even when it has contemplated expanding the grouping to include countries that actually are part of Southeast Asia geographically speaking.
As I have pointed out before, ASEAN enlargement had already been controversial even when admitting countries from the region beyond the original five – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – to include Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam (the so-called CLMV countries in the 1990s), because of legitimate concerns raised among some members ranging from their limited capacity to their slowing of the regional integration process. Indeed, some of the dynamics that outside observers often attribute to more immediate causes – such as Cambodia’s foot-dragging on the South China Sea that inhibits ASEAN consensus – is partly the consequence of expansion by the organization (See: “Does ASEAN Have a South China Sea Position?”).
Similar issues, along with others, have been raised with respect to the admission of East Timor, which is clearly part of Southeast Asia geographically and has been expressing its desire to be part of ASEAN since the years following its independence from Indonesia in 2002 (See: ‘When Will Timor-Leste Join ASEAN?”). Indeed, ASEAN’s experience has illustrated that, far from being a “why not” question as Duterte suggested, expansion has generated real benefits and costs that ought to be weighed carefully before proceeding.
What Turkey and Mongolia likely requested in Beijing recently was not full membership within ASEAN, as Duterte portrayed, but for some kind of formal partnership with the grouping, which both have already been repeatedly asking for over the past few years.
That is certainly permissible in an ASEAN context. Under Article 44 of the ASEAN Charter, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting can confer several formal statuses on an external party, including sectoral dialogue partner, development partner, special observer, guest, or dialogue partner (which is considered the highest level and the only one most outside observers have really read about; major powers like China, the United States, and Japan are dialogue partners). External parties can also be simply invited to ASEAN meetings or cooperative activities without being conferred a specific formal status.
But even so, conferring some kind of formal status to these two countries is also hardly a “why not?” question if you talk to those involved in such decisions. Turkey and Mongolia are not the only countries knocking on ASEAN’s door to upgrade their status with the grouping; there is in fact a long line, both because of Southeast Asia’s growing importance in its own right but also other benefits, including in some cases being able to participate in various ASEAN-led multilateral bodies. But from an ASEAN perspective, there is a careful balance that needs to be struck between forging closer ties with some key countries – and all the additional interactions and logistics that come with them – while also ensuring that the regional grouping is not stretched too thin and left with too much to do.
With his comments on this issue, Duterte has once again demonstrated a poor understanding of the nuances of foreign policy and the complex choices that ASEAN as a regional organization face. By now, close observers of the Philippine president would have grown weary with the waves of sensationalism that seem to follow his carelessly phrased statements. Indeed, the bigger surprise is the fact that some have still yet to catch on to this recurring pattern and begin according these statements the same level of importance Duterte does.